Friday, March 10, 2017

There's a long long trail a-winding *

Finton Sanburn O'Donnell was born on May 12, 1896, in Carroll's Crossing, Northumberland Co., New Brunswick on the upper reaches of the Miramichi River.

On November 9, 1915, he travelled to Sussex, NB where he enlisted in the 104th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Six months later, on June 28, 1916, the Battalion embarked at Halifax on the S.S. Olympic (the older sister of the Titanic and the Brittanic) and set sail for Europe. (If you click on the pictures, you'll be able to read the small print.)

I never heard him talk about the war but I do know that he fought in the north of France and in Belgium. I connect him with Passchendaele and his service record seems to suggest that he fought at Vimy Ridge. Right at the end of his CEF Soldier Detail form, there's a cryptic note that suggested he might have been killed at Vimy. Look at the very last line:

He wasn't killed at Vimy but it may have been there that he picked up all those pieces of shrapnel that remained embedded in his body for decades after. I have a clear memory of him being in the hospital — I think it would have been in the '60s — for "removal of World War I shrapnel." If he went back to Vimy today, he would find it has changed although there may be landmarks he would recognize. It looked like this when we visited in 2015.

After the war was over, when he came back home, he married my mother's oldest sister — Lou, or Lulu. She had been teaching at the little school in Durham Bridge where she and her brothers and sisters had grown up. At some point after they got married, they moved to Smoothrock Falls in Northern Ontario where two of Lou's brothers had settled with their families.

But their future was in Durham Bridge. They came back and lived with Lou's family — their only child, Cedric, was born there — while Fint built the house that I visited throughout my young life.

The house is still there, in a lovely shady yard not that easily seen from the road.

It was a pretty house. It has some charming features that were particularly attractive to little girls. There were inviting built-in bookshelves in the triangular space beneath the stairs. Lulu had lots of books that we loved reading, including most of the works of L.M. Montgomery in old-fashioned hard-cover editions. I was reading one of them one day when it came time to leave and she insisted I take it with me. I still have it.

Upstairs, there was a cozy bed at the end of the hall, built into the space where the two slanted walls of the roof met. It was where I slept when we stayed overnight and I liked it partly because I could see whatever coming and going there was in the night, being out there in the hall. It showed a lot of imagination and creativity to have built that little bed in that space. People with less imagination might have simply put a table there — not nearly as interesting.

The screened-in sunporch at the front of the house was the chosen place for spending an afternoon during a summer visit. I can still feel the soft breeze and almost smell the fragrance from the flower garden, not far beyond where we sat. The women always sat on one end of the porch, the men on the other. There would be tea.

As with most country houses though, the kitchen was the heart of the house and the focal point in the kitchen was the built-in sofa/day bed. It was an inviting spot and I spent many an hour curled up there, reading. It seems odd to me now but it seemed perfectly natural then that stacked near the bottom of the day bed was a pile of The Illustrated London News. We often walked with Fint up the railway tracks to the station to get the mail and I remember a couple of times, a bunch of The Illustrated London News would have arrived. It was an occasion; those papers were much anticipated.

The kitchen sink with a water hand-pump was in front of a low window that looked out onto the garden. There were the usual rows of vegetables but the spectacular parts of the garden were the flowers. There were sweet peas and gladiolas, roses and pansies, cosmos, zinnias, marigolds, nasturtium. Those flowers were magnificent. At a certain point in the summer, every room in the house would be adorned with bowls and vases full of roses. It was a touch of such beauty and elegance.

Fint reputedly was not that fond of children but he seemed to like Marilyn (my sister) and me and we spent a lot of time with him. The land that belonged to the family was rented out and farmed by a neighbour but Fint still liked to take a walk down through the fields and he often took us with him, especially when there was haying or harvesting being done.

Although he had retired from working the farm, he kept some chickens and a black cow called Lady in a small barn not that far from the house. I was a little scared of Lady although not when she was in the barn. We loved being there when Fint was milking Lady. There were cats and kittens in the barn and he would send a stream of milk toward them and the cats would leap with open mouths to catch some milk, nice and fresh. He sat on a three-legged stool and milked into a shiny metal pail and from there, the milk went into a beautiful large amber pitcher, right into the fridge.

One time, Fint took us up the road to a supper in the community hall. It was baked beans, brown bread, potato scallop and ham. I'm not sure why no one else went to the supper but Marilyn and I were happy to go along with him. It was a good supper too and looking back, I remember how respectful all the people there were toward Fint. I had never seen him except in very familiar family situations and it was nice to see that his neighbours felt so warmly toward him.

Lulu did most of the cooking in the household, as far as we knew, but apart from that, she sat in her rocking chair like a tiny Queen. She was said to be "delicate," which caused her younger sisters to scoff. "She'll outlive us all," they often said and indeed, she did.

She was always nicely turned out and it was no secret that Fint regularly took the bus into town — Fredericton — where he exchanged her library books, bought a box of chocolates, and brought dresses and shoes home "on approval." She would make her choices and on his next trip, he'd return the rejects.

When Lady and the chickens were gone and he needed more challenges, he built a workshop just across the yard from the backdoor of the house. It was another place that he welcomed us and I loved going out to the workshop. Inside, there was a workbench on one end with every kind of saw and a good selection of tools. In the far corner, there was a cot and along the opposite wall, a pot-bellied stove. There was a record player with a selection of 78 rpm records that he was using to learn another language — Russian, I think.

Near the window, there was an easel where Fint painted pictures, usually still life of fruit or flowers. He built the wooden frames to put around his pictures. The floor was covered with curls of newly-planed wood. I loved the smell of the shop, the fresh wood, the paint, the turpentine.

He built furniture also. Mum had a sturdy little end table in her den that he'd built.

And he built this:

My lovely little bookcase — always called "the Sharon bookcase" — has now been with me for several decades. Its first home was in my bedroom when we still lived in the "hydro houses" in Chatham. It stayed home with Mum and Dad for awhile but it's now part of my furniture and has been for many years and in lots of houses. It's just outside the kitchen door here — a high-traffic area — and it's full of cookbooks which seem to suit it very well.

When I look at it closely, I see what a labour of love it truly was.

That's a little drawer along the top and the letters that spell my name are cut from wood and painted silver. Think of the work! I wish I had appreciated it then the way I appreciate it now.

It was the bookcase that inspired me to write about Fint. He really was such an interesting person. I had no idea when I was little. How would I know? But when I look back at the man who built such an interesting little house with such imaginative details; who was teaching himself another language; who read The Illustrated London News; who grew the most beautiful flowers ever and also painted their portraits; who built a personalized bookcase for his little niece never knowing that more than half-a-century later it would hold pride of place wherever I lived, I'm filled with admiration.

When you hear the expression, "a life well-lived," you don't always think of a life like Fint's, a life on a small farm in central New Brunswick, in sleepy little Durham Bridge.

I think his life qualifies though and I would like to think he thought so too.


* As often happens, I have no particular reason for choosing my headline except for a song that keeps running through my head as I write. I do think of the First World War when I think of Fint although I think of many other things too. But I like this song and I listened to a version that was recorded by John McCormack in 1917. You can listen to it too. You don't have to download it. You can click right at the top of the page where it says Vintage Audio. (Adjust the volume on your keyboard. It opens very loud.)

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

My virtual journey to the land of the politically unhinged

It started one day last week when I was reading a Facebook discussion about the latest from the Trump administration. It was the time of the infamous ban on immigration from certain countries; his prayer breakfast ask for better ratings for The Apprentice; his angry and inappropriate conversations with world leaders; and his Black History Month statement with the astonishing reference to Frederick Douglass.

Most of the people in the Facebook discussion — progressives all — were expressing various degrees of outrage, shock and embarrassment. It was the mention of embarrassment that raised the subject of people in the US who had voted for Trump: do you think those people are regretting their vote? Do you think they're feeling remorse and will be joining the resistance as time proceeds?

It was right about then that a commenter showed up to say something like, "Let's give him some time. Every new president has to learn the ropes and he should be given the same chance as others."

This is not an uncommon view on the Internet but I was surprised to see it in this particular discussion. So I popped over to his place to see what kind of fellow he was. I took a look at his profile — he's a Canadian — and checked out a few of the discussions on his own page. Nothing outstanding. Some of his friends looked intriguing though so I took a ramble around. The people I clicked on were American but apart from that, completely random — I chose them either because I found they were interesting looking or they made a comment that invited further investigation.

It's hard to come up with numbers but I clicked on dozens of different people starting with that fellow and moving through whole colonies and communities of his friends and their friends and so on and so on. Most people don't use tight privacy measures and all of the people I checked out had hundreds — some had a few thousand — Facebook friends. I read many many discussions on their pages and saw little disagreement among the participants so I think it's fair to say that I managed to get a wee taste, at least, of the political climate.

The people I chose were not wild-eyed, tobacco-chewin' reprobates. Many, but not all, of my choices were women — women who garden and who lay a lovely Thanksgiving table and have grandchildren. They're church-goers and they quote the Bible regularly. There were quite a few from Texas but also people from Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Arizona, California, Maine and I'm sure a few other states I'm forgetting.

Having spent a few days following a variety of their discussions, I can assure you of one thing: they do not regret voting for Donald Trump. On the contrary, they love everything he's done so far and they're looking forward to whatever outrageous thing he does next. They couldn't be happier about his cabinet and judicial choices and the harder the Democrats fight against the appointments, the more gleeful and gloating these Facebookers are.

I can see something else very clearly: their love and admiration and support for Trump has risen to the top of their political lives but it's built on a foundation that is solid and enduring. That is their malevolent, toxic, vicious hatred for President Obama.

The accusations of Satanism are just the beginning. On most of the pages, when he's mentioned, he's referred to as Barack HUSSEIN Obama II. The hatred of Obama is matched only by the hatred and fear of Muslims which is never far from the surface of the discussion. It is also deeply rooted in racism and full of words and images that I can't get out of my head and that I'm certainly not going to report here. I will only say that more than once — many times, in fact — I have seen references to "our" America (quotation marks theirs) and I've often seen a picture like this. . .

. . .with the statement, "Thank God, we have a real family in the White House now."

Now I wasn't that surprised to see and experience the hate. I've always known it was there. Anyone who follows US politics knows it was there. I admit that I was taken aback by the extent of the virulence of some of it and there are plenty of posts, memes and pictures I wish I could un-see. I'll have to hope it fades.

If I wasn't surprised by the hate, I was surprised by the love. I don't know if it's really love but it's expressed that way.

"I love President Trump so much," was one simple post I saw from a woman in Baton Rouge. There were no comments following it, just a series of sweet little heart icons. It made me sick, to be honest. I never thought someone could feel that way about Trump. But it wasn't the last time I saw that sentiment expressed. It was all over the place. It made me wonder how people could feel so differently about one man and his actions? How could Trump be mocked and ridiculed, scorned and despised by one group of people while another group swoons with happiness over every scandalous action he takes and every atrocious word he utters?

Two reasons: It's possible that the real divide in the US is where your information comes from. The Trump-lovers are not getting their information from the New York Times or the Washington Post or the LA Times or CNN, CBS, ABC, NBC — any of the outlets that Trump himself calls the "dirty lying media." Source of all fake news.

And if Fox News and Breitbart disappeared tomorrow, Trump-lovers would not be left high and dry looking for news. There are certainly hundreds — probably thousands — of "news" sources out there ready to pick up the slack. The appointments Trump makes, the things he says and does, and the things that others say about him are "reported" so differently as to be unrecognizable. When they read the beautiful things about Betsy Devos' life and beliefs and then read about the obscene, repugnant teachers unions and civil rights groups who spoke against her appointment — they're convinced. They love Betsy and anyone who's so kind and so generous will save and protect the children from the perverts who make up the education system.

So yes, media make a difference. But maybe not the biggest difference.

This picture has been going around in various communities. It's a big joke in some of them but believe me, to the people I've been visiting with, it's no joke. They not only accept this version of what's happening in the Oval Office, they believe it was ordained. One person posted, "If only you knew a little more about the REAL US history, you would know that Trump is a freaking force of nature sent by GOD to defeat evil! End of story!" The history he's referring to is slavery. He posts a picture of Jesus signing a bill then, a few breaths later, he launches into some of the most disgusting hate language I've seen all week.

So I think this is all pretty complicated. I wrote this because I became convinced that there are probably many people who voted for Trump who are not sorry and who love him and his presidency. I've now come to believe that if anyone tries to remove him, there will be hell to pay.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Regrets? I've had a few but then again. . .

One of the apartments I lived in as a young woman in Montreal had a French Provincial dining room suite — a table to seat six, a buffet and hutch. I remember them looking something like this:



I may be remembering them a little more elegantly than they were but these look close in my memory anyway.

There was nice living room furniture too — also some French Provincial pieces although the cat had really done some unfortunate damage to a pretty little love-seat. This kind of damage:

It was very unlike the chrome sets and plastic upholstery of most furnished apartments.

I enjoyed it a lot until a friend speculated that an elderly couple had probably been evicted for non-payment of rent and the evil landlord had seized the furniture and sent the dear old pensioners packing. That was a terrible story. I preferred the version that had the old couple passing away peacefully and their grateful family donating the furniture to the building in memory of their happy life there.

I lived alone in that apartment for awhile, an interesting experience for me. I had never lived alone. I wasn't working right then — by choice — and I enjoyed the leisure time I had, pursuing some of the interests I'd never been able to fit in. I spent time in museums and galleries, I browsed in the bookstores, I went to two movies — alone!— I had lunch with friends.

One day, when I was browsing in the record store, I ran into a fellow I knew through some mutual friends. I liked him. He was a lovely guy, smart, funny, a little shy. We had a nice conversation about the music we were both looking at and he was very enthusiastic about his purchases. He said he'd love to play them for me and I said I'd love to hear them. We agreed to get together at my place, order a pizza and listen to music. It was very casual.

He came over a couple of days later and it was fun. We talked a lot. We sat on the floor near the record player and took turns choosing music. We ate some pizza and drank some wine.

It was late when the conversation wound down and we started to dance. The music was soothing; the movement was easy and relaxed. What a lovely dancer he was.

Barbra Streisand was singing He Touched Me when we kissed, a soft sweet kiss that came so close to sweeping me away that I suddenly realized I had gone too far.

I was in a committed relationship and this was not something I would do.

I moved away from him, so sadly, and I told him this was wrong for me. It hadn't been my intention. He was sad too. He said it hadn't been his intention either and I believed him.

The buses had stopped running and he lived quite a distance away. I assured him it was okay if he stayed although those French Provincial couches weren't made for napping on. We both went in and lay on the bed, each on one side, on top of the bedding. When it began to get light out, he left quietly.

I continued to see him over the next few years — always in the company of others. There was plenty of laughter and music. I even have a few photos of him and me, fooling around, obviously having fun. The subject of the evening we spent together never came up.

Would this be a better story if it had ended differently? There's no answer to that. Stories don't end so easily. If I had chosen differently that evening, my story might have had a much different plot.

It's said that when we look back, we'll regret the things we didn't do more than anything we did. Maybe.

Maybe not.

Listen to Edith Piaf here.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

All about me: One of those Facebook things I never do

These exercises show up on Facebook in various forms, covering different topics. I saw this one today and I thought it would be interesting (to me) because it's all about me! It's not a polite conversation of give-and-take, back-and-forth. It's like being interviewed.

And it's easy. I'm working on some pieces that are a little more difficult and require some research so I liked this one.

1. Who are you named after?

I think I remember asking my mother if I'd been named after anyone she knew and the answer was no. Neither my sister nor I were named after anyone. They were just names my mother liked. (I'm pretty sure my father would have been happy with Mum's choices.)

2. Last time you cried?

I saw a film called Lion a few days ago. It's the story of a tiny boy of five — played by Sunny Pawar, maybe the cutest little guy ever — who gets lost in the teeming streets of Calcutta. I won't tell you the story although Sunny grows up to be played by Dev Patel and along the way, there are some touching and some quite wrenching moments. Anyone might shed a few tears.

Sunny and Dev at the Golden Globes

3. Do you like your handwriting?

Sure. What's not to like? I do remember that I was a terrible writer in early elementary school but by about grade five, I became aware that I was surrounded by fellow students who had such pretty writing that I made it a project to improve mine. I don't think I ever made it "pretty" and I didn't dot my "i's" with little hearts or anything like that. But I think my writing is pretty nice.

4. What is your favourite lunch meat?

Such an odd question and so out of place. I remember as a little kid really liking sandwiches made with one of Mum's freshly baked rolls, a slice of Kam and French's yellow mustard. I told Mum it was what I was going to serve at my wedding. (I didn't.) There were also Spam and Klik and Prem. Probably others too but it was always Kam for me. I don't eat Kam any more. I do like a good ham. We had an excellent one over Christmas.

5. Do you have kids?

I do.

Here he is. His name is William and he's a university student studying political science. He's just started an NDP students' association. (Photo by Keisha Toner.)

6. Do you use sarcasm?

Who, me? Why I'd never even consider it.

7. Do you still have your tonsils?

I do not. I had my tonsils removed when I was 21. It's considered major surgery when you're an adult and it was quite an ordeal. I was in my final year as a nursing student at the Montreal General Hospital and I was admitted to the 20th floor — a private floor and the height of hospital luxury. Even still, I wouldn't recommend it as a casual experience.

8. Would you bungee jump?

No.

9. What is your favorite kind of cereal?

I'm not a big eater of cereal although I grew up eating porridge and shredded wheat — remember those big dry clumps that you'd crumble into your bowl and soak in milk?

I like corn flakes and rice krispies. I don't like any cereal that's "frosted" or is so obviously sugared-up.

10. Married?

I am. I've written about meeting my husband right here and about our wedding over here. They're both awfully good stories and I recommend them.

11. Do you think you are strong?

Tough question. Do you think I'm strong? I haven't really been tested the way so many people have; in general, I've led quite a fortunate and privileged life. I did, however, go through a robbery where I was held at knife-point and left bound and gagged in my bathroom and there were people who thought I handled that with some fortitude. I wrote about that too and you can read it here.

12. What is your favourite ice cream?

Oh, it changes. Right now, I like a small bowl, every so often, of Breyer's Gelato, vanilla and caramel. It's decadently lovely and you must not eat too much of it because you don't want it to become commonplace or familiar. You want it to remain an aloof luxurious enigma.

13. What is the first thing you notice about somebody?

Hmmm. It depends, of course. Are they walking toward me? Am I being introduced to them? Are they alone? Is there something terribly unusual or eccentric about them? Are they behind me? I find this question almost impossible to answer. When I get an answer to all my questions, I'll try again.

14. Football or baseball?

Baseball.

15. What is one thing you like about yourself?

Golly. What can I say? I guess I like the fact that I'm quite self-disciplined and quite organized. I think I'm considerate of others and I try to make the world a better place. I like my hair.

16. What colour pants are you wearing?

Black.

17. Last thing you ate?

Beef stew with dumplings.

18. What are you listening to right now?

SiriusXM Streaming. Margaret Whiting singing The Way You Look Tonight.

19. If you were a crayon, what colour would you be?

Probably forest green.

20. Favourite smell?

As so many others do, I love the smell of bread right out of the oven.

And on a more romantic note, I love the fragrance Summer Hill by Crabtree & Evelyn.

Don't worry, I mostly wear it at home or to my hair salon where I assume it will fit right in and won't cause any allergic reactions. I'm respectful of allergies and there are plenty of perfumes and colognes that I really hate. But Summer Hill is light and floral and irresistible — in its place.

21. Who was the last person you spoke to on the phone?

My sister, Marilyn. She had a birthday last week and I called a day or two post-birthday for an extended chat.

That's Marilyn in front with her beloved granddaughter Aleesha. Standing behind her are her husband Tom, her daughter Lisa, son-in-law Mike, and son Matthew (Aleesha's dad.) The picture was taken at their cottage on the upper Miramichi.

22. Favorite sport to watch on TV?

Baseball. Or basketball. It depends on what's on. I know and love the game of baseball and I always wonder how anyone could find it dull. There's so much to watch for in a baseball game: a perfect double play, or a bunt laid down the third-base line and a dramatic slide into second, or the tension as the pitcher shakes off the catcher's signals, looking for the perfect pitch and rattling the batter a little while he's at it. So exciting and suspenseful and dramatic. Basketball is, of course, not very subtle. It's just exciting because it is.

23. Hair colour?

I often say it's platinum but it is, admittedly, snowy white.

24. Eye colour?

Blue.

25. Favourite food to eat?

Whatever is placed in front of me when I'm really hungry. One of my most-read posts on this blog is called The best thing I ever ate. . .

26. Scary movies or happy?

There are more than two categories of movies. I don't particularly like scary movies but I like lots of movies that wouldn't be described as "happy." One of my favourite movies, going back quite far, is Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean Jimmy Dean. It's a Robert Altman movie and it stars Cher, Sandy Dennis, Karen Black, Kathy Bates. One of the reviewers called it "soft and sad" — which it was, so neither scary nor happy.

27. Last movie you watched on TV?

The Railway Man: "A former British Army officer, who was tormented as a prisoner of war at a Japanese labor camp during World War II, discovers that the man responsible for much of his treatment is still alive and sets out to confront him." It was good although I usually don't watch movies if I sense there's going to be torture. There was torture but I averted my eyes.

28. Last movie you watched at a theatre?

Lion, as noted above. Far far above. However, the second-last movie I saw was La La Land. I won't go into any detail because I don't want to provide spoilers so if you want to know what I thought of it, send me a stamped, self-addressed envelope and I'll definitely be in touch.

29. What colour shirt are you wearing?

White with a red and black geometric pattern. (?)

There's the shirt on a London sight-seeing bus. If I'd been thinking ahead, I could have used this photo to illustrate number 5 and number 23.

30. Favourite holiday?

Christmas, I suppose, although that seems very conventional and predictable. I really like Easter too. Both are religious and traditional and steeped in family lore but Easter seems a little more flexible. It's a beautiful time of year also, alive with hope and lengthening days. The feast is fresh and bright and there's lemon in every course.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Wishing for a happy and peaceful 2017

Of course, it will take a lot more than wishing to bring about the kind of year that the world deserves.

Many people think of the Monday after Labour Day as the real New Year. I can understand why but January 1 feels like a new beginning to me. All the brand new calendars, the beautiful Christmas tree out to the curb, the settling-in after holidays to challenge the winter.

2017 is going to be a major challenge. A lot of people around the world and here at home are going to need help and support. I hope we will all do what we can to reach out to our community and beyond.

New Year's Eve is a much-anticipated celebration and, sad to say, is often a letdown for that very reason. Here's a story I've shared before in which New Year's Eve lived up to all expectations. It's the story of New Year's Eve in Madrid.

Friday, December 23, 2016

From Macy's to medieval music; from Scrooge to the Bolshoi

Back in the balmy days of August when we made our entertainment choices for the months ahead, Christmas looked something like this:

As I always think it's nice to incorporate some theatre and music into the Christmas rush, we went ahead and scheduled our outings and bought our tickets not really remembering that the reality of Christmas is often this:

We managed pretty well though and only had one day where the weather was unpleasant and — being in Halifax — it was more rain than snow. Rain and wind.

Ever since William was a little guy, we've tried to go to the Neptune Theatre Christmas production each year. In August, when we were getting the tickets, we had no idea where William might be during the holidays so we bought two tickets. But William is home from university and was happy to join us for the family tradition so Dan searched out a third ticket. Neptune had only two tickets left, both in the balcony, on opposite sides from each other. I said I'd be happy to go to the balcony (not!) so the ticket was bought.

They didn't make me go to the balcony though. Dan went up and William and I sat in the aisle seats of Row E. You get good seats when you buy your tickets in August.

Neptune's Production was Miracle on 34th Street. (Photo borrowed from Local Xpress.)

It was really good and we all enjoyed it. It runs until well after Christmas so you might enjoy it too.

That was indeed a busy day for us as we had two major events. We had a delightful early dinner at Brenton Persian Grill. I had Fesenjan:

A traditional Persian stew made with pomegranate molasses, walnuts & sauteed onions served with (or without) sliced chicken breast and saffron basmati rice. We recommend you have it with our Shirazi salad.

I took their advice and had it with the Shirazi salad which was finely chopped cucumber, tomato and red onion in lemon juice and mint and was delicious. I took home some leftover Fesenjan which Dan ate the next day and said my dish was probably the best of all three that we'd ordered.

Then we were off to the Cathedral Church of All Saints for A King's Christmas 2016, music from the University of King's College Chapel Choir.

The music was magnificent, the narrator was dramatic and accomplished, the stories and poems were eclectic. Some of the music was sung in Latin, in French, in olde English and in Gaelic. A lot of it was quite profound.

A very different evening was spent with the actor Rhys Bevan-John who did a one-man show of A Christmas Carol. It was nothing at all like I expected but it was great fun and it retained the message of the original story and the redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge. We're big supporters of Eastern Front Theatre whose production this was and we were pleased when the artistic producer, Jeremy Webb, told us that he had solicited support from the business community to provide a theatre experience for families who can't usually afford tickets. That will be a Christmas Eve event.

I'm very glad we were able to take in these live productions but in the end, it may turn out that the highlight of our season was on a movie screen — the filmed live performance of The Nutcracker by the Bolshoi Ballet.

What is it that makes something the "best in the world"? The Bolshoi has often been called that and from the very first movement of the dancers, you would get no argument from me.

The two principals dancing the roles of Marie and the Prince were Anna Nikulina and Denis Rodkin.



Anna was born in Moscow. In 2002, she completed her training at the Moscow State Academy of Choreography (teacher Elena Vatulya) with distinction and joined the Bolshoi Ballet Company. She rehearsed under the late Yekaterina Maximova. In 2004, at the age of 19, she danced Odette-Odile for the first time. Today her teacher-repetiteur is Nina Semizorova.

Denis was also born in Moscow. In 2009, after graduation from Moscow State Academic Dance Theatre Gzhel he joined the Bolshoi Ballet Company where he started to rehearse with Nikolai Tsiskaridze. Now his master-repetiteur is Yuri Vladimirov. In 2013, graduated from Bolshoi Ballet Academy (The Faculty of Education).

When Anna and Denis danced — alone, with other members of the company, or in their breath-taking pas de deux, it was easy to imagine that their feet were not touching the floor. I can't begin to describe the transcendence I felt while watching them.

Our host at the ballet did a short interview with Denis Rodkin at intermission. She introduced him to us as the "most beautiful man in the Bolshoi company." He's a beauty all right. He played the Prince a little shyly, a little distant, but also warm and loving. He was very appealing.

There you have it, some of our Christmas entertainment. There may be more to come; I'll keep you posted.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Blue lights, bubble lights, revolving trees — it's Christmas!

A few days ago, I told Dan I had come up with a new slogan that I hoped would catch on: "Christmas. It's all about change!"

I was reacting — immaturely, I suppose — to some annoyingly sweet reference to Christmas being all about love and family and tradition and doing it in such an over-sentimentalized, tear-jerking, exploitative way that it just rubbed me the wrong way. It was trying to take you back to where it thinks your childhood Christmas is lurking.

But I guess they're right. Christmas isn't about change. It's about doing things over and over and over, every year, in exactly the same way. Isn't it? Isn't it?

You can see that I made myself think.

In fact, every year, I look at the Canadian Tire catalogue and all the flyers and brochures from the hardware stores and the department stores and I see page after page of "new" Christmas stuff — new-style trees and wreaths and lights and ornaments — and I always wonder who's buying it? There's way too much simply to supply a young generation of people just starting out and buying their Christmas stuff. But doesn't everyone else already have all their stuff? And don't they use it making the same Christmas year after year?

It so happens that we went the other night to David Myles' Christmas show with Symphony Nova Scotia. David does put on a good show. He has so much personality and he’s funny — not to mention a good singer/musician. He sang a lot of the old familiars and some of his own Christmas compositions which turned out to be nice also.

One of the songs he sang was one I didn't know: Buck Owens' Blue Christmas Lights.

(Excuse me, Miss, but do you have any...)

Blue Christmas lights for my Christmas tree?

I want some blue Christmas lights just as blue as me

The one I love has set me free, but I still got her memory

Give me blue Christmas lights for my Christmas tree. . .

It wasn't a great song, not particularly memorable, but there must have been something evocative about it because right there, in the middle of the concert, I began to think back to my childhood and the very first tree I ever saw that was covered completely with blue lights.

In the '50s, in Chatham, NB, I lived in the NB Power Commission houses — commonly called the "hydro houses" — right on the edge of town. I often remind people that the Welcome to Chatham sign was in our backyard.

There were six houses, three on each side of the small cul-de-sac, each one across from its own mirror image. On our side, our house was closest to the road. In the middle was the Calabrese family, and next to them, the Parks family.

The Parks two oldest girls were almost my age — Edith (Edie) a little bit older, Lynn a little bit younger — and we spent a lot of childhood time together. It was always a little bit of an adventure for me because their family was very different from mine. It was a big family, four kids then, five later, and much more raucous than mine. My family would probably be considered reserved.

When I look back now, I think the Parks parents, Anna and Howard, were very young — maybe barely out of their 20s. They were from up-river. Anna was from Whitneyville and Howard from (I'm pretty sure) Sunny Corner. Howard was robust and a great kidder. My mother probably wouldn't have approved of some of the things I heard when I was over there.

But they took great enjoyment out of life and Christmas was a time of year that they leaped into with gusto. They had spectacular decorations and it was there that I first saw a tree that was completely lit with blue lights. And now that I think about it, the blue-lit tree was only one of their Christmas trees that I remember. One year, Howard had the tree on a revolving platform that turned at the flick of an electric switch.

Of course, the tree had to be placed out into the room, away from the walls, and it had to be decorated all the way around, not just on the part that faced the room. I may be embellishing it in my own memory but I think there was music involved too. I think Christmas melodies played while the tree was revolving. It was quite a neighbourhood attraction.

Another year, the Parks' tree had these lights. Do you remember these?

I'm not sure they ever caught on in a big way. I've probably seen them a few times since that year at the Parks but I think I remember reading or hearing that they weren't very reliable and maybe were more trouble than they were worth.

Our family pretty much had these and we had them as long as I can remember.

Every year, they came out of the box and Dad would untangle them and plug them in and replace the ones that weren't lit. The only new bulbs that ever got bought at our house were the little packages of replacement bulbs.

But you can't run a consumer society on a family like ours, who used all the same Christmas stuff year after year. (I still have some of it — not the lights but the treasured old glass ornaments.) Today, Howard would have the time of his life at the Canadian Tire, changing it up every Christmas and delighting little neighbour kids with theme trees, coloured trees, and trees of all sizes for all occasions — tasteful, tacky and otherwise.

Howard would have a ball.